“Guns are therefore not just a quaint and nostalgic part of American culture; they have been central to its preservation of freedom, advancement of human rights, and ability to reform itself against injustices along the way.”
The philosophy of non-violence is usually discussed in the pop-culture isolated from the subject of self-defense. We hear most about the evils of violence when there is a mass shooting, such as what occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, not when an armed citizen protects herself or her family from an attacker, which happens much more frequently across America. As a result, progressive politicians and media hacks are able to promote a sanitized view of the philosophy of non-violence conceived in ivory towers and spin-rooms, without having to address the messy reality that includes a fallen world with criminals who want to hurt you and your family.
Those who look up to the generally non-violent teachings of Jesus, Gandhi or King might think their ideologies are contradictory to the idea of self-defense, and by extension, gun ownership for the purpose of self-defense. But that’s not really accurate.
All three of these leaders made a crucial distinction between non-violence as a tool of political and social reform, and defense of self or family against the actions of criminals. One can make a moral defense of non-violent political reform, but there is no moral defense for refusing, given the opportunity, to stop a criminal who is about to kill innocents. That is morally indefensible.
Consequently, there is no moral defense for a government that seeks to make its citizens defenseless against such criminals. Disarming law-abiding citizens will not slow the growth of violence; it will accelerate it by disarming the very ones able to stop it. In addition, disarming the governed turns them into subjects, and the political class into rulers rather than an extension of self-government. But that is another discussion for another time.
The teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, and King are too often portrayed to promote a radically non-violent ideology, or pacifism, when that was never what they taught. These great leaders instead rose to fame speaking about matters of political, social, and spiritual reform, not the pragmatic world of self-defense. Where they did address the use of force in self-defense as a separate subject, all three allowed for it.
I don’t believe for a moment that Jesus taught individuals not to defend themselves or their families against criminals. That would be morally reprehensible. How could a loving God desire a husband to let a criminal rape his wife while non-violently protesting the act? All violence is not equal; there is moral violence and immoral violence. We know this because Jesus specifically instructed his disciples to sell some of their outer garments and buy a sword (which may have been the first recorded instance of a policy of “open carry” of a weapon – Luke 22:36-38). I can imagine that carrying their swords openly would have led to fewer conflicts with the baser sorts they might have encountered in their travels.
Paul later writes about the dangers of his missionary travels, including encountering bands of robbers (2 Corinthians 11:26-28) on the road. I think it’s safe to assume, given Jesus’s instruction to his disciples to carry a sword, that Paul didn’t turn the other cheek to the bandits, but wielded his sword when necessary. If he carried it in plain view, he probably didn’t have to use it often.
To understand Jesus’s teaching to “turn the other cheek,” we have to understand that he was most often addressing the Sanhedrin and Pharisees, the hypocritical political and religious leaders of the day who lived by the creed “an eye for an eye.” That is a far cry from what modern believers advocate in defense of the Second Amendment. Jesus lived in a society that faced political oppression from the Roman government, and expected a coming Messiah to rise up in a violent overthrow (something the religious sect called the Zealots actively promoted). His teachings were designed to exemplify a different concept of the Kingdom of God, teaching his followers to view this Kingdom as a spiritual entity rather than a political one.
This was a different topic entirely than that of self defense. That subject went almost untouched by Jesus. Pacifists will cite Jesus’s famous reproof of Peter to “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). However, even this occurred in the context of Jesus leading what amounts to a non-violent protest against the leaders of the day who opposed his message. He was not giving any instruction against self-defense, but against violent political aggression.
Gandhi’s teachings on non-violence are much easier to correlate with the practical idea of self-defense, because he openly taught that non-violence was a tool that should be considered first, but not exclusively. He addressed self-defense and defense of the defenseless this way:
“I have been repeating over and over again that he who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honour by non-violently facing death may ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor. He who can do neither of the two is a burden. He has no business to be the head of a family. He must either hide himself, or must rest content to live for ever in helplessness and be prepared to crawl like a worm at the bidding of a bully. …
“I must not let a coward seek shelter behind nonviolence so-called. Not knowing the stuff of which nonviolence is made, many have honestly believed that running away from danger every time was a virtue compared to offering resistance, especially when it was fraught with danger to one’s life. As a teacher of nonviolence I must, so far as it is possible for me, guard against such an unmanly belief.
“Self-defence … is the only honourable course where there is unreadiness for self-immolation.
“Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defence or for the defence of the defenceless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission. The latter befits neither man nor woman. Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery. Every man must judge this for himself. No other person can or has the right.” (Source: The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi)
Like Gandhi, King’s espousal of non-violence was clearly promoted in the context of political and social reform, not personal self-defense or the defense of other defenseless people. In fact, it’s a matter of historical record that King at one point applied for a concealed carry license, and almost always traveled with armed guards. Glenn Smiley, one of his closest advisors, described King’s home as “an arsenal” for a reason. He once almost sat on a loaded gun on a chair at a meeting in his home. King wrote:
Here one must be clear that there are three different views on the subject of violence. One is the approach of pure nonviolence, which cannot readily or easily attract large masses, for it requires extraordinary discipline and courage. The second is violence exercised in self-defense, which all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal. The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure nonviolence. The third is the advocacy of violence as a tool of advancement, organized as in warfare, deliberately and consciously. There are incalculable perils in this approach. (Source: The Social Organization of Non-Violence)
The little-known truth is that civil rights era leaders like John Salter, the famous organizer of the 1963 sit-ins, travelled armed, and praised the Second Amendment for allowing him and his fellow organizers to protest and reform society while keeping some level of personal safety for themselves and their families. In fact, the oft-maligned NRA stood side-by-side with black civil rights leaders helping to ensure their legal right to arm themselves as protection against the violent KKK, but that fact is conveniently airbrushed out of the record by modern pundits. Guns are therefore not just a quaint and nostalgic part of American culture; they have been central to its preservation of freedom, advancement of human rights, and ability to reform itself against injustices along the way.
Our culture has become philosophically illiterate on the subjects of non-violence and gun ownership. It is one thing to sit in the agora in our philosophers’ robes and discuss theories of pacifism detached from the need to actually put them into practice. It is quite another to sit in a crowded theater and watch innocent people, unarmed by the theater chain’s policy against concealed carry, be murdered in cold blood. The brand of non-violence that leaves the defenseless incapable of protecting innocent life is not at all what Jesus, Gandhi, or King advocated. That philosophy is a fabrication of the political class and only the most extreme religious pacifists.
The philosophy of non-violence was never meant by its most famous advocates to prohibit ownership of weapons, or to prohibit defending oneself or other innocents. I will choose to protect my family today and worry about explaining it to the armchair philosophers tomorrow. Call it short sighted, but at least my family will be alive to have that debate.